Nov 272017
 


I had been pondering for a few weeks what to do with the Thanksgiving holiday week. Due to some comp time built up, it made sense to go somewhere for the week since I could get a nine day vacation for the price of two days. Due to some fluctuations with flights and availability my plans changed a few times, but as a long-time Zimbabwe watcher, when the coup (sorry, “protection of democracy”) happened it made my choice pretty easily.

Unfortunately due to some other commitments, I ended up having less time than originally planned and unfortunately it became a shortened trip, which unfortunately meant I arrived in the country the day after Mugabe’s resignation. You can’t exactly plan and time these things well, and at least I would be there the next day and see the very first day of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Enough background, let’s get into the trip!

Delta flight 151
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Atlanta, Georgia (ATL)
Depart 15:04, Arrive 17:00, Flight Time: 1:56
Airbus A321, Registration N324DX, Manufactured 2017, Seat 14B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,002
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,500,403

Overall, a pretty average domestic hop to start the trip. Yes, I ended up in a middle seat, but at least it was Comfort Plus so I had plenty of legroom. Unfortunately, I had a “passenger of significant size” on BOTH sides of me. The gentleman in the window was as polite as possible and “leaned” toward the window as much as he could, but the guy on the aisle was far less pleasant. He insisted on keeping the armrest up, and made no effort at all to avoid spilling all over me. Ugh. Even in an uncomfortable position you can still make an effort to be as helpful as possible to your fellow passengers. I think the flight attendant took pity on me, however, because she she made the drink run and I asked for red wine…well, she was generous!

Delta flight 200
Atlanta, Georgia (ATL) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 18:17, Arrive 16:30 next day, Flight Time: 15:13
Boeing 777-200LR, Registration N707DN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 11A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 144,441
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,508,842

This was my first time on Delta’s 777 product, and although the seats were a little old-fashioned and worn, first impressions overall were pretty good. I’m a huge fan of all-aisle access, and this product does that will still being roomy and relatively private given the high walls.

“Tray service” in business class doesn’t bother me as much as it does some others, and I liked having the appetizer, soup, and salad at the same time so I could alternate bites as I felt like it. The ceasar salad was meh, although the dressing was pretty good. Loved the butternut squash soup, and the “butternut squash, date, and meyer lemon compote” was a little odd – but taste. Seems United’s asparagus fetish has company in Delta’s butternut squash fetish. Plus….pretzel roll! Yum!

Four choices of mains, and I went with the butter chicken. It was good, but nothing outstanding.

Cheese and sundae. Sundae was tasty, and I love the biscuit with it. Good selection of cheeses as well, cypress grove midnight moon, kaltbach gruyère, and buttermilk blue affinée. Overall pretty good for a business class selection, plus it came with fig compote so extra points! (yes, I’m still on my figs with cheese kick)

Dinner was over, and I managed seven straight hours of sleep before getting up and watching a bunch of tv. Shortly before landing was the second meal, which was either a lentil salad with grilled chicken or a hot roast beef and cheddar sandwich. The sandwich was really tasty, but the potato salad super bland. The blueberry tart, however, was quite good.

Not too much exciting to say about my overnight in Johannesburg. Had I planned better I probably would have connected straight to Harare that evening, but it was night to have one night in a familiar surrounding to relax. I was back at my favourite hotel by far in Joburg, the Hyatt Regency, where I had stayed just three weeks prior.

In fact, I had come back so quickly that the jacaranda trees still had some flowers on them:

Slept in, had some covfefe, and then it was time to head back to OR Tambo for my flight to Zimbabwe. Mugabe had finally resigned the previous evening, so I was very curious to see the energy on the streets when I landed.

South African Airways flight 28
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE)
Depart 14:50, Arrive 16:25, Flight Time: 1:35
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-SJV, Manufactured 2003, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,035
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,509,436

Despite being a mid-afternoon flight, a snack plate was offered. Nothing extraordinary, but a solid offering for such a short flight. You’d never see this in the US on such a short flight.

While waiting in line at immigration to pay for my visa, I noticed all the immigration officers seemed to be in great moods. I chatted a bit as mine wrote up my receipt, and cracked a joke about “what, did something exciting happen here recently?” It was like the entire nation was in the middle of one great big party, and I had just arrived!

I had arranged for a hotel driver to pick me up, since at $25 it was the same price the airport taxis were rumoured to extort you for. I was staying at Meikles Hotel, which had recently celebrated it’s 100th birthday in 2015 and bills itself as the oldest hotel in Zimbabwe. I’d read many reviews online that it doesn’t live up to its five star reputation and is old and tired, but my experience was exactly the opposite. No, it’s not a brand new sparkling hotel in Dubai, and I’m not usually one to go for “old school charm” but I found it a very nice place to stay – especially given its location in a country that’s been experiencing economic malaise for nearly two decades.

I had splashed out for a club floor room with a park view, figuring if the demonstrations were still going on against the government at the Parliament across the park I would have a great view. Unfortunately, I was a day late on that as the park was empty by the time I arrived, but I did have a great view! Parliament is just across the square past the trees:

Sun was setting, but I was determined to at least get out a bit before the sun went down. According to the map there was a Pick n Pay Supermarket just two blocks away, so I headed there to pick up a few supplies since I’d actually be spending multiple nights in the same hotel.

The supermarket was packed, and people were staring at me. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was due to me being the only white person in sight, or if it was the tattoos, but it was definitely noticeable. Not in an uncomfortable way, just once of those – I’m standing out here ways.

One of the things that had made me hesitant on the trip was the currency situation. Zim uses the US$ now, and travel sites warn you to bring lots of small notes, because nobody has change. I didn’t have a chance to get to a bank before going, so had to rely on yuppie food stamps for the trip ($20 bills) which turned out to be no problem. If they don’t have US$ change (which, in every transaction I made in the country nobody did) they give you Zim “Bond Notes” in return which everyone took for me at par. Supposedly you can exchange bond notes for US$ on the black market at a 30-40% discount, so I’d have to imagine that for any large purchase if you pay US$ cash you can probably negotiate a discount. Just saying…



That over, I really did want to get out of the hotel for dinner, so I grabbed a hotel car to Pariah State bar/grill in Barrowdale. I hadn’t had enough time to read up on the taxi situation, and while the hotel car price seemed a bit high at $25, it was a 20 minute ride and I figured for safety it was worth it. Dinner was rather tasty, and the people watching was fantastic. Plus…got to sit outside and have dinner which was a treat given winter is coming back in Washington.

Near the end of dinner, two low-level soldiers walked into the bar, and several white Zimbabweans went up and thanked them for what they’d done (ousting Mugabe) and took selfies with them. Amazing…this is why I chose to come now, and it was awesome to see people showing their appreciation to the military.

Decent night of sleep, even though I woke up a bit after 4am (I don’t know why – but the last year I’ve had a tough time with jetlag going to Europe/Africa, something I never had before) so I actually did a short workout in the hotel gym and then off to breakfast. One major negative for the hotel, the person who walked me to my room pointed out the club lounge and told me “you can have your breakfast there.” I asked if it was included, and he said yes…so I went. I was presented with a bill at the end of breakfast, but assumed it would be an internal charge back like many hotels do. Unfortunately, when I checked out, it was on my bill and I was told that whoever told me it was included was wrong…and they wouldn’t budge on the charge. Left a poor taste in my mouth.

Full menu to order from (the lounge has its own kitchen) as well as a mini buffet of fruits and pastries. I went with the eggs benedict, which was on the small side, but given its richness that was just fine. Very tasty, and excellent hollandaise sauce. I can forgive the lack of proper English muffins in Zim:

I had arranged a 9am walking tour with Lynnette from Free Walking Tours Harare, and let me just start by saying she was absolutely amazing! Great communication before the tour via Facebook messenger and WhatsApp, and since I was going to be the only client for the day, we could start whenever I wanted. Awesome!

We started at the Museum of Human Science, and I decided I didn’t want to spend my time in a museum – I wanted to be out walking and feeling the energy of the city. We walked for about 10 minutes, and the first place we came upon was the ZANU PF political party headquarters. The previous evening there had been a huge rally here to greet the return of (now) President Emerson Mnangagwa, and in the process, Mugabe’s face had been ripped out of a billboard:

The HQ building was an impressive structure, but has clearly seen better days. Looked like missing windows, and the exterior was a mess. I would have loved to go inside, but unfortunately that probably wasn’t a good idea given the political situation this week…

From there we walked another 15 minutes to the Harare Gardens. Lyn shared stories about spending weekends there in her childhood, and how the gardens aren’t in great shape now. She hoped with the new government, they could recapture some of their glory. A WW1/WW2 memorial in the gardens:

As we exited the garden, on the far side was the National Art Gallery. Sculpture outside:

Mask on a tree:

After another bit of a walk it was looking like rain, and just in time we reached the Roman Catholic Cathedral:

Very nice on the inside…and I loved how the pink/tan/dark hues played off each other. Lyn shared stories of Zim in the 70s and 80s when it was pretty much compulsory to be Catholic to have access to a good education. Stories of her family and their education, and it was very interesting to hear how things have changed over the last few decades.

Military vehicle in the street. First one I’d seen, so I asked the soldier if I could take a picture. Of course! I should have asked if I could climb up and take one with him…I’m sure he would have said yes. I really need to get better at asking what I perceive are “uncomfortable” questions so I can get better photos! Skill I have yet to master in all my travels!

In front of the Reserve Bank of Zim, with another military vehicle:

At this point we were back by my hotel, in front of Parliament. There were still a few signs out from the celebration of Mugabe’s resignation a couple days prior:

Loved seeing how participatory the whole thing was:

Parliament. Rare flag “flying straight out” shot. I try and get flags like this all the time, and rarely success:

The coup was so low-key, that the guy sitting out in front of Parliament was alseep:

Right next to Parliament was the Protestant Cathedral of St Mary. Very pink inside, and equally nice:

Quiet gardens behind the cathedral – you forget you’re in the middle of a bustling capital city:

Near the Parliament the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission had set up voter registration, and they were doing a brisk trade in people signing up to vote in the 2018 elections. Now that there is a chance of “free and fair” democratic elections next year, people were excited to register and make their voices heard. One thing every person I talked to said is “it can only get better. If the next guy is bad, we will not stand for it any more.” People were very excited for change, and virtually everyone felt it was going to be a major turning point for the country.

The Eastgate Mall – one of the first in the world to use architecture to provide for natural cooling via airflow. It was noticeably cooler inside, despite no artificial AC and 30 Celsius temps outside.

Took this pic on the walk back to my hotel, not knowing just how famous it would become. Several times over the next day I would see BBC, CNN, etc on tv, and all walking by and talking to these same three fruit vendors and interviewing them for their opinions. I’m guessing it was because they were one block from the one nice hotel in town, so that’s where the news crews ventured.

For example, BBC – I took this pic while having a bottle of water in the Club Lounge. Background look familiar? Yup, she’s in my hotel with the park in the background…exact same view as from my room. Most likely she was broadcasting from her own room less than three doors down from me.

It was early afternoon at this point, and despite a semi-heavy breakfast I was super hungry thanks to the long walk. I googled for a bit, and found there was an app called GTaxi with an online portal where you could supposedly book a driver – just like Uber. Price was given to you in advance, and they quoted me half the price of the hotel car to go back to Borrowdale, so I figured I would try it. Car showed up in under 10 minutes, was nice and clean, driver was chatty and professional, and was a great way to move around the city. Highly recommended!

I had lunch at the Pistachio Cafe in the Borrowdale Mall, and had a delicious “100% Zimbo Beef Burger” and a passionfruit/mango/etc smoothie which was all delicious.

After lunch walked around for a bit before calling GTaxi again to take me to the Zimbabwe National Heroes’ Acre. Unfortunately, given the “current situation” it was closed, as it is a bit of a politically sensitive site. Especially since the “war veterans” (of the liberation war) had come out against Mugabe when he failed to resign in his TV address, this was probably seen as a bit of a sensitive site. Oh well…at least when I called another GTaxi to come get me they were there in about 10 minutes.

Walked around the downtown a bit after I got back, but it was soon sunset so I retreated to the club lounge where I had chats with several very interesting characters. A few diplomats in town for the inauguration of the new president the next day, foreign news crews, a couple of ambassadors who were based in Pretoria but also tasked with covering Zim….it was a veritable who’s who of Southern Africa. This was my first time being in a “small” country at the top of international headline news, and I couldn’t have been more glad that I chose this hotel….and paid the premium to be on the club floor.

I had read on TripAdvisor, and some folks in the lounge confirmed to me, that one of the best restaurants in Harare was Sabai Thai. So yeah, Thai in Zimbabwe was such a strange concept, I had to go and check it out.

The restaurant was in a residential neighbourhood in a small house/garden, so another chance to eat outside. Even better, when I sat down, the resident cat hopped up on lap demanding to be pet. When I ordered the penang curry with chicken I was asked how spicy I wanted it. Potentially a good sign, as long as “spicy” didn’t mean “ok, has a little flavour to humour the westerner.”

I can confirm it was authentically thai spicy, to the point I scarfed three ciders total and had to pace myself as I ate. I’m going to attribute this to the owner’s wife who is from Thailand. DC has more Thai restaurants per capita than anywhere outside Asia so we’ve got lots of great Thai here, and Sabai Thai ranked right up there with the best of them. Very glad I made it for dinner, since it also was a very authentic local atmosphere and allowed me to get a bit of a feel for how those in Harare with money celebrate out on special occasions.

My flight was relatively early the next day so I made sure to get to bed early so I could enjoy a couple hours in the morning before heading to the inauguration. Good thing I was up early, because the club lounge was packed with dignitaries rushing off the the ceremony at the national stadium. Diplomatic staff from several southern African nation were having breakfast, and there was me…in shorts and a t-shirt, hanging out with them just observing.

Headed down to the lobby to go for a short walk before going to the airport, and had to pause…because there was a red carpet set up coming into the hotel, and people were lined up along it. I figured why not, so got in line…and no more than a couple minutes later a series of town cars pulled up with Zambian flags waving from them. That’s how I got a handshake from former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda! Pic I took while waiting my turn (I believe the other guy in the lei is one of the other recent Zambian presidents):

Flags and red carpet outside the hotel entrance:

Took the hotel car back to the airport, which is one of the few things named after Mugabe still standing. His picture has already been removed from the immigration hall, but the welcome sign to the airport was still there:

Bit of time in the lounge which was nothing to write home about, but loved that the news was calling it “Mugexit” LOL. Trying too hard there guys:

South African Airways flight 23
Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 1:40
Airbus A320, Registration ZS-SZH, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,629
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,510,030

Now, remember, this is an 80 minute flight tops. Lunch was offered, with THREE hot meal choices. I went with the lamb. While it might not look super appetizing, it was really tasty…and the potatoes were really good too. Just creamy enough, and the red sauce on the side (which I couldn’t quite figure out) made sure I finished my plate.

Headed to the South African lounge after clearing immigration and security. I was still undecided if I was going to stay another night in Johannesburg, or head straight home, and I was still holding reservations for both. I decided there was no point to another night in South Africa, given I had just been there for a week and didn’t know what I would do with what would literally amount to a dinner and coffee in the morning. Decided to skip it, and catch the next flight hope, saving a few hundred dollars in hotel/meals/etc.

South African Airways flight 209
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Accra, Ghana (ACC)
Depart 18:50, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 5:55
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 148,526
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,512,927

The South African flight from Joburg to DC stops three days a week in Dakar on the way, and the other four days in Accra. When I was working in Senegal I took it back and forth to DC several times, but I’d never had the opportunity to take it the whole way from Johannesburg. That might have been part of my motivation for going straight back too. Fortunately, the day I was going was a Dakar stop day. Why is that important? Well, on the days it stops in Accra the stop is from 10:30 to 11:30pm and the days in Dakar it is roughly 1-2am. Much easier on the body clock to stop earlier and have more time to rest on the redeye westbound to DC. Pre-departure champagne was offered in a nice glass flute (are you listening United?) and then we were off.

I was in the “mini cabin” of business with only three rows, and only 5 seats out of the 12 were occupied so it was nice and private and quiet.

Canapés and wine. While I applaud the effort to do more than mixed nuts, the canapés were soggy and relatively flavourless. Two days later, I can report I risked the cockroach of the sea (aka shrimp) and it’s tiny speck of caviar, and avoided food poisoning from it, hah.

Salmon and trout mousse starter. It was soup…or salad…OR starter. No, you can’t have more than one. Seriously South African, way to look cheap. The only reason I went with this option was for a bit more protein, but after one bite that was enough. Fishy tasting and overall yuck.

…at least there was garlic bread? Except it was soggy and had almost no garlic or butter taste. Oh, and you get half a loaf because it’s not cut well enough to pull apart.

Pan fried beef fillet…the beef was two tiny slices, like seriously maybe 3oz at most, and cooked beyond well done. Yuck. The highlight was the butternut squash (seriously…are you guys and Delta in cahoots?!) and the maelie pap and corn cake because it was novel. While I appreciated the reasonable portion sizes a la Finnair, it just didn’t work.

I posted a trip report a few months ago on South African’s new Airbus A330-300 with the 1-2-1 layout, and that was another reason I chose this flight. Glad to see the config was as comfortable as I remembered.

After dinner I fell asleep for nearly three hours, a good nap on the way to Accra. While I’d hoped to stay awake to Accra then sleep 8+ hours to DC, the body clock had other ideas.

According to TripIt, the Accra to DC flight is only 12% on time, and we were to be no exception. We arrived in Accra with only 30 minutes until scheduled departure, and ended up leaving nearly an hour late. By the time they had done what they called a “TSA security sweep,” cleaned the plane, catered, and boarded the new passengers, it took nearly 90 minutes. Not sure if our flight was typical, but 75% of passengers got off in Accra, and at least 100-150 new passengers boarded. You have to schedule more than an hour for all of that!

South African Airways flight 209
Accra, Ghana (ACC) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 23:45, Arrive 6:15 next day, Flight Time: 11:30
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 153,822
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,518,223

No pre-departure beverages offered, and actually no interaction with the crew at all. There was a crew change in Dakar, and while the first crew had seemed disinterested, this new crew was literally nowhere to be seen.

So bad that once we were in the air, the first interaction was a “we have dinner, you don’t want it do you?” Well, because of that, I had to see if it would be any better.

Nope, the canapés were similarly ugh looking. I ate one just to see….anyone who’s read my blog can probably guess which of the three I went for:

In complete fairness, the “soup of the day” was delicious – it was carrot ginger – and one of the best soups I’ve ever had on a plane. I didn’t ask if I could have the salad or appetizer this time because I wasn’t that hungry, but very glad I went for the soup.

I’m not sure what made me risk the beef again (just like the previous flight, there were four meal choices – beef, chicken, fish, and veg just like the previous flight) but the description of “grilled beef fillet with potato and pumpkin gratin” got me…partly because of the gratin part.

That said, this beef was light years better than the previous one, and the sauce and the gratin really added. A very solid meal. I don’t know if this is catered out of Accra or Joburg, but the two meals appeared to be night and day in quality. Sorry for the low-light pics, but this crew insisted on serving meals with the cabin lights completely turned down.

Despite the three hour nap, I managed to pass out after dinner for a solid six hours. I guess the previous days of less sleep than I’m used to had gotten to me so that was good at least. Why did I wake up? Well the crew insisted on turning on all the lights two full hours before landing, and the resulting noise resulted in me waking up since I was already halfway there. No big deal, I got enough sleep, but seriously, why do you need two hours for a small one-tray meal service? On this rant…they also insist you power down (yes, no airplane mode allowed) all electronic devices at the TOP of descent…a full 45 minutes before landing. Ugh.

Anyways, I went with the hot breakfast option. The eggs were meh as expected from eggs on a plane, but something about the mushrooms and red sauce were actually delicious.

Plus, given the hour delay, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset over the wing as we were on approach:

So, final thoughts on the trip. I literally decided the day that I left that I was going to do this, so absolutely zero planning went into the trip. That said, it was amazing. Sure, I wish I ‘d gone a day earlier and captured Harare the day Mugabe resigned, but you can’t exactly plan those things. Being there the first day in Zimbabwean history without him as President was equally amazing…especially when you saw how quickly people moved on and were ready to build a new nation.

It was also kinda cool to be so spontaneous and head 9,000 miles away on a whim. Great time, great experiences, and despite the exhausting I’m super glad I went. I’ve been struggling a little with “what next” after going to every country, and maybe I need some more spontaneous trips like this!

That said, no plans yet for New Years or 2018, so stay tuned!

Sep 142017
 



After landing in Cape Town, I realized that on all of my previous trips I had had someone else in charge of the planning (be it family, work, etc) so I’d never really had to think how I would get to where I was going. No problem, pulled up Uber, directions to the meeting point were very clear, and had a great drive to my hotel with a very friendly driver from Zimbabwe. We had a great chat about how Harare has changed over the past decade or so, and like many Uber rides all over the world it was a great insight into immigrants working hard to make a living in a new country.

Arrived at my usual hotel in Cape Town – the Westin – and was upgraded to a junior suite which was a bit less impressive than previous stays. It was more than fine for one night, but it had been barely a year since my last stay at this property and I was surprised at the complete turnover in staff. My last stay I had booked several hundred room nights for an event, and gotten to know the staff quite well, so was surprised in this short time that everything had completely changed.

Unfortunately, that also included the stunning Executive Lounge with views of Table Mountain. The lounge was closed for renovations, and there were very vague instructions from the reception about alternate arrangements. Unfortunate, as my last stay at this property had made it one of my very favourite SPGs in the world, and now it was decidedly average. Nothing at all wrong, but just didn’t stand out.

After a super quick nap (still tired from the redeye from Brazil) my pre-arranged driver and guide picked me up for a guided hike up Lion’s Head Peak. I was lucky today, as there was absolutely nobody else on the tour, so it would be a solo hike with just me and the guide. My guide today was Nathan from Hike Lion’s Head – who was a fantastic guide the whole way.

Given the accident I had had with the car just two days prior in Argentina, I was taking things a bit slow, and given the rain and slippery rocks I wasn’t keep to be moving too fast. After heading up the peak a bit, we stopped for a gorgeous view over Camp’s Bay:

Looking up at the peak of Lion’s Head:

Towards the water as the sun set:

Amazing sunset views of Table Mountain, with the “tablecloth” of clouds covering the top:

We spent a couple hours on the hike, and Nathan was a fantastic guide – especially one on one. Sure, you could definitely do this hike on your own, but given the pricing it was great not to have to worry about transfers and to get a local perspective. Especially after sleeping on a plane the night before and doing the hike jetlagged and a slight bit injured. Highly recommend Nathan to anyone else looking for a hike up either Lion’s Head or Table Mountain!

As we arrived back at the car, a great view of Cape Town just after sunset:

Since I wasn’t interested in a tea or anything before the hike, Nathan insisted we stop at a local restaurant for what he promised was an amazing white hot chocolate. Unfortunately they were out this evening, but the regular hot chocolate was also amazing, and hit the spot after a great chilly hike in light rain.

After getting back to the hotel and showering up, I grabbed the complimentary Westin shuttle to the V&A waterfront to get some dinner. I felt like I needed some serious protein, so headed to the City Grill for some game for dinner. Of course I went with the giant grilled mixed venison skewer…

I apologize in advance for the damage I did to Noah’s Ark….but it was delicious!

I still wasn’t tired, thanks to it only being like 6pm in Brazil, so decided to check out what the local craft beer scene had been up to in the year since I was last in Cape Town. At Nathan’s recommendation I took an Uber to Beerhouse, which had an amazing selection of South African craft beer on tap. I seriously had no idea there were so many craft beers even coming out of South Africa yet!

Of course I had to have the 12 O’Clock wheel of samples…

After sleeping in a bit the next morning, I grabbed an Uber up to Truth Coffee for breakfast. Unfortunately, the nitro potion coffee machine wasn’t working today…

So, I had to settle for the regular cold brew potion coffee. I love the old-fashioned grinders:

A bit of delicious Eggs Benedict to go with the bottle of potion coffee:

Full of a delicious breakfast – and a couple of potion coffees – I decided a walk was in order so walked over to the Bo Kaap neighbourhood to enjoy the bright houses. With the bright blue sky after a light rain, it was a perfect contrast for some photos today:

Got back to the Westin just in time to check out after a long walk, and grabbed another Uber to the airport. Uber was fantastic in Cape Town, and I can’t wait to get back for a much longer visit again soon.

Check in was easy, but for some reason every flight to Johannesburg seemed to be running super late this afternoon. There was no explanation for it, but fortunately my flight seemed to be one of the least delayed. After a quick security experience, it was up to the South African lounge to wait out the delay.

Strangest combination of lounge food offerings anywhere in the world. Marshmallows, blue cheese, pumpkin, feta, and olives. That said, it was quite a tasty snack.

As I was waiting, I was my plane eventually taxi by, so it was time to head down to the gate to board, fortunately only about an hour late.

I’m not sure why, but every time I’ve taken an afternoon Cape Town to Johannesburg flight it’s been filled with loud Americans complaining about everything in South Africa. I know this flight connects to many of SAA’s flights to the US, but it always seems there’s next to no local traffic. Today, we were also joined by at least a dozen people in business class connecting on Delta to Atlanta, who were complaining that South African would be responsible for them missing their flight to Atlanta. Sigh.

South African Airways flight 346
Cape Town, South Africa (CPT) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 15:10, Arrive 17:05, Flight Time: 1:55
Airbus A340-300, Registration ZS-SXD, Manufactured 2005, Seat 16G
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 81,903
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,458,880

Flight was completely full due to the delays, and a sandwich was offered as a snack. I decided the veg option was safer than mystery meat, and it was a cheese pita which was actually relatively tasty:

Landed in Jo’Burg around 630pm, and rather than deal with the Gautrain I decided to see how Uber would do to the hotel. Once again, pickup was super quick, reasonably priced, and a great option. Arrived at my hotel – the Hyatt Rosebank – barely 30 minutes later just in time to check in and enjoy the tail end of happy hour in the executive lounge.

Nearly 20 years ago on my first visit to Africa this was the hotel that I stayed at, and over the years so much has changed but some has also stayed the same. The hotel doesn’t seem to hold the glamour of 20 years ago, but I’m not sure how much of that is me as a jaded traveler now and how much of it is the property simply being much older.

That said, the executive lounge is still quite nice, but I’m not sure it’s worth the value for the money any longer unless it’s a complimentary benefit.

Why is that? Well to me the value is in the happy hour (which there’s a 50-50 chance I will miss anyways) and the breakfast. Unless the lounge breakfast is absolutely stunning, I’m usually going to skip it when there’s a relatively new Starbucks right around the corner from the hotel. The first in South Africa. Justin….close enough!

The Starbucks made for fascinating people watching. I’ve been to Starbucks now in probably 30-40 different countries at a minimum, and there was something about this one that still felt much more local and unique. It was an interesting mix of young professionals, students, but surprisingly almost no tourists at all. You can go anywhere in the world and find Starbucks full of American tourists, so it was a bit surprising to see none at all here. Then again, there really aren’t many (if any) tourists in Johannesburg anyways!

Had a bit of time in the morning, so caught the Gautrain over to Sandton for a bit of walking through Mandela Square:

Mandela Square…one of these things is not like the other…

Caught the Gautrain back to the hotel, where I grabbed lunch with a friend before packing up and heading to the airport. It had been a very short two days in South Africa, but given my year away I was really craving the time back. I really need to make a point to get back for a couple of weeks sooner rather than later!

Now, it was back to the airport to get read for my first south Indian Ocean crossing…to Australia!

Sep 132017
 



No wait to check in with South African, although I was mildly surprised that the check-in agent spoke extremely limited English. Not that I expect Brazilians to speak English, but I was definitely surprised that doing check-in for a country where the lingua franca is English you wouldn’t have English-speaking agents – especially in the business class check-in line!

No worry though…and maybe it was good practice because while security was super easy, passport control decided she wanted to ask about the extra pages in my passport. Except, her English didn’t go beyond “how many days” and “where you work” – so my terrible Portuguese and passible Spanish got the point across, but it was definitely a trying interaction.

The last time I was in Sao Paulo it was on a long transit with United, and I remember a smallish United club that was definitely not the most pleasant place to pass the time. This has since been replaced by a rather nice Star Alliance lounge which is not only spacious, but also rather bright and airy. The only downside was that it was slightly warm since it was “terminal temperature” but overall it was quite nice.

I didn’t check out the showers, but there were plentiful places to charge your devices, and even with the lounge rather full of evening departures to Johannsburg, Frankfurt, Zurich, Houston, etc, there was plenty of seating. For some reason, I was feeling some protein was in order, so a hamburger pattie, meat pie, and some more pão de queijo it was!  …with a glass of reasonable Argentine malbec to wash it down, of course. For anyone taking notes, the entire bar was also self-service.

After about an hour in the lounge I headed towards the gate, and was glad I got their slightly early to (a) catch a short of my plane before the sun set, and (b) because it was at the very last gate in the terminal. I joked about the long walk to the gate agent as we were queueing to board, and she said “it costs more to park closer.” I don’t know if she was kidding, but….

Boarding started 30 minutes before departure, and I was excited to see just how much of an improvement South African’s A330-300s were over their tired old business class.

South African Airways flight 223
São Paulo, Brazil (GRU) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 18:00, Arrive 07:25 next day, Flight Time: 8:25
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 6K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 80,325
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,457,302

I opted for seat in the sixth row, towards the back, since the flight looked completely empty and it looked like I would have the entire empty fifth row between me and any other passengers. I ended up being right. They actually blocked off the mini cabin behind the galley and kept it empty. In total, there were only nine passengers for the 28 seats in the front business class cabin.

First impressions: loved the colour scheme, and loved how spacious it felt. Very similar to the Delta seat I had come down to Santiago on.

View across the cabin, in 1-2-1 configuration.

The red accents were a nice touch. Headphones hanging at the ready:

Middle pair of seats – even here plenty of room between you and your seatmate.

Happy…and very tired to be on-board and settled in.

Pre-departure champagne was served…in a real flute. There were some delays in boarding, so when she came to collect the glass I asked if I might have another. “No. One per passenger.” was the reply. Ugh.

Event the seatback video was advertising…the seat we were already in. Maybe this was meant for economy?

Nice-looking amenity kit, but just the basics inside.

The menu looked a bit better than I remember from recent South African long-haul flights:

Service began about 30 minutes after takeoff with drinks and canapés. The canapés reminded me of something I would see on a US airline – just uninspired and kinda cheap looking.

The roasted filet starter. It tasted better than it looked, but was definitely a little too roasted for my taste. That said, it was reasonably tasty. But what’s with the unnecessary random lettuce garnish. The 90s called…they want their plating back.

I don’t remember why, but I went with the chicken main. It was perfectly cooked, and the vegetables were a bit better than the usual super-uninspired fare. Given my usual low expectations for catering on South African, I’d say this meal overall did pretty well. Plus, there was garlic bread…

The milk pudding with caramel sauce, however, was amazing.

Ok…the cheese plate was pretty bad. I would almost venture to say worse than Untied with the cheap packaged biscuits and rubbery cheddar…but there was fig spread. So tough call…

The novelty of the trans-South Atlantic route hadn’t worn off on me yet, but I was a little concerned about our apparent flight path. Upside…maybe a quick stop in Ascension or St. Helena?

I managed nearly five hours of sleep, and wasn’t really hungry when I woke up, but the crew insisted I “at least have a little.” Ok, so I went with the deli plate. It was reasonable, except that damn lettuce garnish made another appearance…

Upon landing, some rather official looking people boarded, and the flight attendants announced over the PA that everyone must remain seated while customs officials boarded the plane. A woman’s scream could be heard from deep in the economy section, and a few minutes later two women with Louis Vuitton handbags were escorted off the plane. No clue what it was all about, but added a bit of excitement.

Rather long walk to immigration, and the usual early morning long lines in Johannesburg. Fortunately things moved relatively quickly compared to normal, and I was through in about 30 minutes. No questions, quick stamp into the country, and on my way.

On previous trips I had opted to skip the arrivals lounge, but out of curiosity I decided to check it out this time. It’s a short elevator ride up just beyond the baggage area, and while small has everything you need upon arrival. There was an extremely friendly agent working the desk who was not only welcoming but also offered a shower (with escort to the shower) and offered if there was anything else I needed be sure to ask her. A nice touch after a redeye when you’re tired and jetlagged.

After a shower and a couple bottles of water it was through the arrivals area, to the domestic wing, through security (which moved pretty quickly) and into the domestic South African Airways lounge to wait for my connecting flight. Was nice to see the large model plane in the lounge still:

Boarding was via a bus gate (as widebody domestic flights usually are at Johannsburg) because the plane had arrived internationally and was still parked at the international pier. Bus to the jetway, walk up a long flight of stairs into the jetway, and time to board.

South African Airways flight 323
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Cape Town, South Africa (CPT)
Depart 10:05, Arrive 12:15, Flight Time: 2:10
Airbus A340-300, Registration ZS-SXC, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 81,114
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,458,091

I had originally chosen a seat in the middle section since I hate people climbing over me and I hate climbing over people. I wasn’t looking forward to these seats in a couple of days to Australia after the great experience I’d just had:

There was even a small snack served on this flight which could have been much better, but given that I wasn’t hungry it was adequate for pecking at the fruit at least:

Overall, South African actually managed to exceed my expectations on this flight. I had great hopes for the new A330-300 seat, and it met all of them with flying colours – although I’m sure the light load on the flight also helped to colour my perspective a little bit. South African can also be extremely hit and miss with service, but it was definitely a home run this time due to a great new hard product and well above average crews. Now, time to enjoy Cape Town a bit!

Apr 252016
 

Before heading home, only fitting to add a few shots from Cape Town. Like the sunrise view from the Westin Executive Lounge:

IMG_6845

View of Table Mountain from the waterfront:

IMG_6851

Another view, this time from the water:

IMG_6860

Fantastic sunset on the water:

IMG_6861

IMG_6867

Looking back towards Cape Town, and a full moon:

IMG_6875

The Cape Wheel lit up at night on the V&A Waterfront:

IMG_6880

One last sunset from Camps Bay:

IMG_6890

Another daytime view from the Westin Exec Lounge. This hotel was absolutely fantastic in every way. Great rooms, fabulous Platinum treatment, great restaurants, and the brightest star was the staff. They went out of their way over the course of a week to accommodate every request I had and went above and beyond the fall of duty. It’s hard to fail, though, with a view like this:

IMG_6906

Soon enough, over a week had passed, and it was time to get back home. My hockey team had made the championship game in the meantime, and I was anxious to get back in time to play!

Check-in was easy, although they were only able to check me in as far as Johannesburg. Long line for security, and took nearly 30 minutes to clear. Once through, the walk to the South African lounge wasn’t too bad, and there was great plane spotting today. TAAG 777:

IMG_6909

Kulula 737 with a very awkward “this way up” paintjob. Just in case, idk, the plane gets turned upside down?

IMG_6910

…and my ride for today for the short hop to Joburg, a South African A340-600:

IMG_6916

South African flight 346
Cape Town, South Africa (CPT) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 15:20, Arrive 17:15, Flight Time: 1:55
Airbus A340-600, Registration ZS-SNG, Manufactured 2003, Seat 4D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 41,950
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,231,475

Once airborne, a small snack was served. The couscous, cheese, tomato, and olives were ok, but the mystery meal was…pretty nasty:

IMG_6919

Other than that, not too much to say about this short flight. Same wine selections as the flight down to Cape Town, friendly crew, and about 80% full in business, but the seat next to me remained empty which was a super nice surprise. The crew didn’t even say anything when I used the seatbelt to buckle in my laptop bag for landing! Nice!

Bus gate in Josie, and unfortunately we had to wait to fill up the bus – no special treatment for business class! Rather long walk to the international gates, and another 30 minute wait for passport control. Ugh! But once through, the South African lounge was absolutely packed for evening departures. Since the onboard meal wasn’t really edible, I grabbed a small snack in the lounge – I jokingly told friends back home this was crocodile stew, and most believed it. Goes to show how even South Africa is considered exotic!

…that said, it wasn’t labeled. Tasted like lamb, but there’s no guarantees…

IMG_6920

Long walk to the gate for the Lufthansa flight, and waited forever to board as the crew was stuck in traffic. This was to be the first time I transfered 747-8i to 747-8i and I was looking forward to a very comfortable trip!

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 19:40, Arrive 05:25 next day, Flight Time: 10:45
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 8D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 47,330
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,236,855

So…what’s for dinner tonight?

IMG_6922

…after a couple glasses of wine in the lounge, I decided to try out my very limited German, and ordered my wine and starter. The super friendly FA continued in German, so I decided to see how long I could keep this going. I always joke that I don’t speak German – I speak Lufthansa, and the extent of my German is to tell you that Zu jedem Sitz gehört eine Schwimmweste. In der First und Business Class finden Sie die Shwimmweste unter der Armiehne!

I must have been reasonably understandable, because I got my wine and mixed nuts. I’m so glad Lufthansa has finally upgraded from the pre-packaged nuts:

IMG_6924

I went with the sweet chili beef for the starter, and it was reasonably tasty:

IMG_6927

I’m not sure why I decided on the pasta as a main, but it was pretty bland, as expected. I won’t do shrimp on a plane, and I’ve been burned by bad beef so many times that I guess the pasta was a default. Maybe I should have risked the beef after all…

IMG_6931

Tasty, but incredibly stingy cheese portion:

IMG_6932

After eating, I passed out for over seven hours of sleep, and slept right through the pre-arrival breakfast service. No matter, I wasn’t really hungry anyways.

Passport control agents were waiting at the top of the jetway as they often are in Frankfurt for Africa flights, and after a quick flash of the passport (without even opening it) they waived me on. Several others weren’t as lucky…

Through formal passport control, again managing the whole very brief exchange in German, and I was in the airport at 5:30, only 5 minutes after scheduled arrival. Very short walk to the airport Sheraton, quick check-in, and by 6am I was in bed and sleeping soundly. Clearly seven hours wasn’t nearly enough, and I managed another 4 hours of solid sleep.

Grabbed a quick shower, followed by coffee and pastry in the Sheraton exec lounge, and then headed back to the airport. Stop for the obligatory Starbucks to finish waking up, where once again my name was strangely misspelled:

IMG_6938

Through immigration and security. It was the day before Easter, and this group of Chinese tourists was absolutely fascinated with this random duty free person posing as the Easter Bunny:

IMG_6940

Quick stop in the Senator lounge for a pretzel and easter eggs, along with a glass of riesling:

IMG_6941

Then, very short walk to the gate and it was time to board.

Lufthansa flight 418
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 16:55, Flight Time: 9:05
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYR, Manufactured 2014, Seat 7D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 51,411
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,240,936

Having slept 11+ hours I was pretty sure I was going to stay awake this whole flight. The flight to DC was completely full in all classes, and they were offering a 200 euro voucher to go the next day. Um, no thanks. So now, let’s eat!

IMG_6944

Mixed nuts and red wine again, are you sensing a pattern?

IMG_6946

The medium-rare roast beef as advertised. Tasty, especially with the pretzel roll:

IMG_6947

A rather anemic salad:

IMG_6948

The tandoori chicken breast was ok, but nothing special.

IMG_6951

Much better serving of cheese…and a dessert! Bonus!

IMG_6952

Plus, mark this as the flight where I learned Lufthansa has an on-board espresso machine. This was the first of four double espressos consumed in the next eight hours…

IMG_6953

After lunch, I spent several hours doing work and watching tv, before it was time for the pre-arrival meal. The salad was pretty sad, and the curry soup was even worse. The whole meal was pretty poor…the riesling was the star…

IMG_6961

So what to do? Another glass of riesling and dessert. Best part of the meal!

IMG_6962

Landed at Dulles right on time, immigration was a zoo but was through in two minutes thanks to Global Entry. The line for immigration stretched down the hallway and looked at least 30-60 minutes long. Fortunately, the Global Entry line was much shorter and I was through in five minutes.

Taxi ride home, quick shower and pick up the hockey gear, eat a pack of fig newtons, and it was off to the hockey rink, where I arrived just in time 30 minutes before the championship game. The picture below tells all the story…it was well worth rushing home for!

IMG_6971

Stay tuned…next up is my next attempt to check off country #192 visited – Tuvalu!

Apr 232016
 

Had to head to Cape Town for work, and debated taking Qatar for the service (and crediting to American) but in the end decided the chance to earn some Star credit was too good to pass up. After that, if came down to who to fly: South African? Lufthansa? Maybe try something new and take SWISS? Decided to go with SWISS because, if I was going to spend the day in Europe I wanted to do it in Zürich, plus, United had upgrade space available on the flight to London, so it was a no-brainer!

Quick check-in at the first class counter at Dulles airport, no wait at TSA PreCheck, and was quickly off to the United First lounge, despite my flight leaving from the D gates. My usual glass of bubbles along with some shrimp cocktail and salmon:

IMG_6755

Caught up on work emails, and then the long trek down to the D gates. I don’t think I’ve ever departed Dulles transatlantic from the D gates before in dozens of flights, so I guess I should count myself lucky!

United Airlines flight 918
Washington, DC Dulles (IAD) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 19:35, Arrive 06:50 next day, Flight Time: 7:15
Boeing 777-200, Registration N798UA, Manufactured 1998, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 34,668
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,224,193

What’s this…not just welcome aboard bubbles offered, but anything you want to drink? Wow, United, careful, someone might start to think you’re a real international carrier…wait, the plastic glasses dispel that notion!

IMG_6757

Fun new historical postcard amenity kits. This is my fave of the kits lately, because the case actually makes a fantastic toiletries bag. I have a few of them now, so hopefully they last a while!

IMG_6759

Sunset departure from Dulles:

IMG_6760

So what’s to eat tonight?

IMG_6761

IMG_6762

Takeoff was on time, and now it’s time to eat…excellent!

IMG_6769

Château le Jeff 2016 and warmed split cashews…groovy!

IMG_6771

Garlic bread…this flight is off to a good start!

IMG_6776

Shrimp tempura and corn…that sort of thing ain’t my bag, baby!

IMG_6778

I love mushrooms. I love leeks. I did NOT love this mushroom and leek soup. Two bites and gave up. Fortunately, the Château le Jeff was in plentiful supply tonight, as was the garlic bread!

IMG_6779

The salad was…unmemorable.

IMG_6780

BRING ME ZEE PORK CHOP! As usual, it was solid…the stuffing thing is pretty tasty, and broccoli pretty much is my favourite veg, sooo…

IMG_6782

Pre-plated cheese, but it was delicious with some sweet biscuits. For once I was stuffed, and didn’t ask for seconds.

IMG_6783

Ice cream “with hot fudge and cherries” only yielded two cherries tonight. Below average.

IMG_6786

I passed on the offer of more drinks as a nightcap…

IMG_6787

Slept four solid hours, which for a six hour flight is excellent for me. Was super happy with it, plus, if I needed it, I would have all day to nap. The usual super long walk to immigration at Heathrow, followed by the equally long walk back to the remote terminal for the United First lounge. Skipped the shower, and opted for breakfast since I’d slept through it on the plane. If I was going to be in London, at least I was going to order some bacon rolls and a buck’s fizz, even if it wasn’t on the menu. Not a problem at all, and the lounge was happy to prepare:

IMG_6789

Super long back to the other pier for my SWISS flight on to Zurich, but it felt good walking after being on the plane.

SWISS flight 317
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH)
Depart 08:50, Arrive 11:40, Flight Time: 1:50
Airbus A320, Registration HB-JLR, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 35,159
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,224,684

Flight was only about half full in “business” so I switched to the window seat and had a whole row to myself. Very solid breakfast for a short flight, complete with Coke Light. Wasn’t terribly hungry after lounge breakfast, so pretty much just nibbled at it:

IMG_6790

Got to Zurich, and was definitely ready to crash. Quick train ride, and I was at my favourite hotel, the Sheraton Zurich. Checked in, crawled in bed, and was out for a good 4+ hours of sleep. Felt much better after that, so went out for a good hour-long walk to the city centre before heading back to the hotel to do a bit of work. Headed to the hotel bar for happy hour, since a drink and snack was included for platinum members. Decided to get a little fuel for the trip back to the airport:

IMG_6793

I was already checked in, so headed straight to immigration, where I had a little bit of drama with the immigration officer, who refused to accept my documents despite the fact I’ve entered Switzerland on the same passport multiple times. Finally, he agreed to let me through, but the whole experience was odd…anyways, headed to the brand new SWISS pier lounge, and had a nice cooked to order light dinner of rosti, pork, and gummi bears!

IMG_6796

Only had a little time in the lounge to catch up on emails and such, before boarding my onward flight.

SWISS flight 288
Zurich, Switzerland (ZRH) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 22:45, Arrive 10:25 next day, Flight Time: 10:40
Airbus A340-300, Registration HB-JMO, Manufactured 1997, Seat 10A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 40,370
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,229,895

Tonight’s menu features cuisine from the Canton of Baselland:

IMG_6798

IMG_6799

IMG_6801

The smoked trout and char starter was interesting…first time I’ve ever had a lavender-honey sauce:

IMG_6802

Grilled John Dory for a main, which was excellent…and the pretzel roll made it even better. I’m warming to this whole fish on planes thing!

IMG_6804

Basic, but tasty dessert…I’d already had the cheese, so was pleased:

IMG_6805

One final glass of wine and a chocolate before bed:

IMG_6806

Slept nearly seven wonderful hours, and woke up just as the flight attendant was bringing breakfast. Meats, cheeses, and muesli with rhubarb? I was in heaven…I love rhubarb!

IMG_6807

Immigration was a hot mess in Johannesburg, as we had landed behind several other flights – at least an hour wait if not more. Fortunately was able to jump to the head of the queue, where I got a very strange agent who decided to look carefully at every stamp in my passport before asking where my visa was. Ugh, dude, I don’t need a visa…calls over his equally clueless supervisor. Finally, they agree, ok, you don’t need a visa, stamp stamp, welcome. The whole experience, again, was very odd.

Off to the domestic side of the terminal, quick stop in the South African lounge for a Coke Light, and just as quickly it was time to board. Unfortunately we were at a bus gate this morning, but it was on time and efficient, so really can’t complain!

South African flight 333
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Cape Town, South Africa (CPT)
Depart 12:10, Arrive 14:15, Flight Time: 2:05
Airbus A340-600, Registration ZS-SNG, Manufactured 2003, Seat 2D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 41,160
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,230,685

It was a treat being on a widebody for a short domestic flight, and we had a super friendly crew today. They were pretty much forcing drinks on people, and I decided to go with the vegetarian snack…which came “sealed in freshness” hahah:

IMG_6808

It didn’t look any more appetizing once the plastic came off. I refuse to touch anything with mayonnaise on a plane, so gave everything but the water and wine a miss. I tried the fruit, but as usual dry and flavourless, sooooo…..

IMG_6810

After a quick flight we landed in Cape Town right on time, where we actually had a jetbridge, quick domestic arrival, and it was time to get to work! My driver that I had pre-arranged from the Westin was waiting for me, so it was a nice quick and comfortable transfer to my home for the next week.

Feb 072015
 

Woke up way too early, had a nice light breakfast in the exec lounge and headed down to the Gautrain to head back to OR Tambo Airport. The airport line of the Gautrain doesn’t go to Rosebank, so had to take the train one stop to Sandton, go down the escalators, and change to an airport train. Nice and easy, and only a two minute wait for the train, so it was very smooth. I’d budgeted an hour to get from the hotel to the airport, but ended up taking barely 30 minutes.

Check-in for Airline is way over in Terminal B, practically halfway to Mozambique. The irony is, once checked in, you have to walk all the way back over to Terminal A for departures. Logical? No. But somehow, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. I guess I was already getting in the Africa mindset a bit and accepting that sometimes (often) things just don’t make any sense.

Security had only one line open, so was about a 15 minute wait to get through. Off to the SAA Business Lounge, for a light pre-departure chocolate muffin and espresso:

IMG_6883

Walking to the gate past some of the shops…oh, good, I’d forgotten my zebra pelt at home so it’s a good thing the airport had them for sale!

IMG_6884

View out onto the tarmac:

IMG_6886

Down the escalator to the bus gates. My gate was swarming with Mormon missionaries. One started chatting me up and asked “what does YOUR church believe in?” Um, no thanks, not interested in a chat. I was tempted to explain the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to her, but didn’t feel like it was worth the effort 😉

IMG_6887

Boarded our bus, and when there were 29 people on board (which exactly matched the seatmap on Expertflyer – it appears for SAA/affiliates at least Expertflyer is completely accurate up until departure) we were off to the plane.

Airlink flight 8252
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Antananarivo, Madagascar (TNR)
Depart 10:00, Arrive 14:10, Flight Time 3:10
Avro ARJ-85 Regional Jet, Registration ZS-ASY, Manufactured 1997, Seat 3F

Business and economy seats on the ARJ-85 were exactly the same, just with a small moveable divider between them. The plane was a 2-3 config with four rows/20 seats in business. Only five were occupied today. I was beginning to wonder if anyone flies on SAA regional flights, as there were only 24 people for about 50 economy seats too. View after takeoff:

IMG_6891

There’s not too many ways you can do towel service – hot or cold, with or without tongs, maybe some lemon squeezed on them, but this was definitely a new way of handing people cold towels:

IMG_6893

Post-takeoff beverages – water and red wine:

IMG_6895

Meal choices were beef strips and chili sauce, or chicken strips and sweet chili sauce. Both were cold. I went with the chicken and it was actually pretty tasty. The pasta salad was good too, and I actually ate all of it. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for something containing mayonnaise on a plane, which usually scares me. Oh, and the berry mousse dessert was fantastic as well. Overall, a rather impressive meal for a short regional flight.

IMG_6900

Landing cards were passed out, which were actually small booklets containing a bit of information on the country as well:

IMG_6901

View out my window on approach:

IMG_6902

Immigration was a mess. There were a few lines, but none of them were marked, so it was completely unclear who was supposed to go where. There was a visa on arrival window, but it listed 0-30 days as free, so I went to the other window, where I was directed to a third window. There were about 20 agents at this third window, and it was unclear who was doing one. First one asked for my onward ticket, ok….then passport…then what was I going to do. She handed my passport to another person, who looked at it, looked at me, and then handed it to a third person. He looked at it, paged through it, and handed it to a fourth person…who didn’t even look at it and handed it to a fifth person. Number Five put it in a stack, so Number Six could stamp it. When he’d stamped it, Number Seven added another stamp….and I was off. Well, that was entertaining…

My driver and guide from Jean Be Tours were waiting for me in the arrivals area and we went to the car to do paperwork. Lots of paperwork. Sign this, read that, stamp stamp stamp, more things to sign, explained the detailed itinerary to me. It was definitely the most legalistic tour I’d ever been on, with everything documented, stamped, and signed. Not sure if this is a government requirement, or just how this company operates.

Then, we were off on the very long drive to my hotel. I’d originally booked the Hotel Carlton but when I found out that it has rather poor internet I looked at other options. Turned out a friend from DC happened to be in town at the same time (what are the odds!) and was staying at the IBIS, so I decided to give that a try for my first night. I could always switch to the Carlton for my second night if I chose to. Some scenes from the drive to the hotel….selling meat and sausages on the side of the road:

IMG_6908

Vegetables for sale:

IMG_6910

There had been very heavy rains most of the day, and the streets were pretty flooded:

IMG_6911

Finally got to the hotel, where I hadn’t made a reservation, but I had confirmed online that there were rooms. No problem, they found my corporate rate, and rooms were a full 50 Euros cheaper than the Carlton as well. Got to the room and was pleasantly surprised at it, so looked like I’d made the right choice!

Met my friend for a drink and caught up for a bit before heading out for dinner. I generally try and avoid hotel restaurants as much as possible so looked online (and on google maps) for what might be near. There was an “Italian” place called Au Stade about 900 meters away which got good reviews, so off I went. Then it started raining. Then there were no sidewalks. Then there were no streetlights. Either I would eventually get there, or I would be abducted by lemurs in the process. Fortunately, after about a 15 minute walk I found the restaurant, where I was one of three tables.

Reviews online raved about the lasagna, but decided I was a bit hungrier so went with a pizza which was actually pretty good. Along with two large bottles of THB – “Three Horses Beer.” Pretty grim beer, but went well with the pizza.

IMG_6916

For dessert, the Crêpe Surprise….what was the surprise? Turned out to be bananas and honey. With a bit of vanilla ice cream it was rather tasty!

IMG_6917

Large pizza, dessert, and two beers was 40,000 francs including a small tip, or about $15. It was quickly becoming pretty obvious that Madagascar isn’t exactly a very expensive destination. Fueled by beer the walk to the hotel wasn’t as bad, plus the streets had completely emptied out so there weren’t nearly as many people (or traffic) to content with plus the rain had stopped. Quick walk back and passed out tired from a very long day, plus…I had to be up early to head to the National Park in the morning to go nature walking!

Feb 062015
 

Check-in at the South African counter was a breeze, and based on the seatmaps on ExpertFlyer we looked to have a pretty empty load going down to Johannesburg today. Up to immigration where I made some nice chat with the agent, she asked if I went to the lake, and then looking at my passport picture quizzically, I said “yep, it’s still me!” Her sassy response? “Yes, and you are wearing same shirt as two days ago.” I was NOT about to let that stand…same type of shirt, yes, but slightly different colour. The agent sitting next to her looked over and told her “you need to examine your eyes! This is orange that is red!” Hahahah…

Off to the lounge…which was closed. Instead, the airport cafe had been converted to the business class lounge. Hmmmm….and the air conditioning was broken. So was the internet. Fortunately, it was cool and I only had a bit over 30 minutes to wait for my flight. The lounge was pretty spartan, but had one of the most delicious flavours of chips I’ve ever tried…good thing I can’t find these in America!

IMG_6807

Caught up on e-mails for a bit and enjoyed the chips (but resisted a second bag) and enjoyed the view of the tarmac:

IMG_6809

Soon, it was time to head down to the gate and board. There was security before the gate, and then there was another bag check where you had to open up your bags and have them hand-searched. By hand-searched I mean open them up, have a hand stuck in them for 2 seconds, and let you go. Security theatre at its finest.

Boarding was via a bus gate, which of course meant the pushiest got to board first with no concern for priority. Flight looked pretty empty today, so it really didn’t matter.

From my seat, looking back to the airport:

IMG_6810

Door closed…and OMG, I’m the only person in business class. 32 seats, and it’s only me. Not having to worry about other passengers totally changes the calculus of where you want to sit.

South African Airways flight 171
Lilongwe, Malawi (LLW) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 13:05, Arrive 15:35, Flight Time 2:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-SJV, Manufactured 2003, Seat – EVERYTHING! (but sat in 04A)

Earlier, the purser had asked me if I had fun in Malawi. I said “yes, but I didn’t get to see Madonna, so I’m disappointed.” When the door closed and it was confirmed I was all alone, he comes over and says “now you can pretend you ARE Madonna and this is your private jet.” Hahahah! I asked him to take pics to document, and he went nuts, taking 20+ pictures.

IMG_6815

Lunch was underwhelming, but at least the beef was a nice medium and edible. The purser told me there was “plenty more if I want more of anything”:

IMG_6817

That clearly includes garlic bread! 😉 Look at all that garlic bread! A full business class of catering all to myself!

IMG_6818

Landed right on time, immigration was a piece of cake, and headed off to the Gautrain to head into Sandton. I was struggling a bit, so stopped for a triple iced espresso in the airport, and then headed on my way. Quick ride to Sandton station, and then time to find my hotel…the Hilton. For some reason I seem to stay in different hotels every time I go to Jozi, and this trip was no different. I don’t know why I’ve never settled on one hotel, but it is what it is. This time, the Hilton had a pretty good rate which combined with Hilton Diamond status made me go for it.

Walk was a bit longer from the station than I expected at 900m, and that combined with the sun and hills made it a bit of a trek with bags. No worries, checked in, and was given a nice studio suite. One thing about Hilton I’m not overly pleased with is their push to sell “guaranteed” upgrades…which aren’t really guaranteed. You agree to pay for an upgrade if it’s available at check-in, in an attempt to give them to people willing to pay over people with status. It’s annoying, but it is what it is. Anyways, the room was nice, blah blah.

Made some phone calls, including to United, to change my flight out to Madagascar the next day. Recovering from a sinus infection a couple of weeks prior, combined with jetlag, and I was just feeling exhausted…and not ready to spend nights in a forest lodge without modcons. So, I decided to stay in Jozi an extra night. Tickets were easily changed with a few Skype calls, and then I set off to get a hotel.

Unfortunately, the Hilton was sold out, so I wouldn’t be able to stay another night. Everything else I usually stayed at was full as well, or extremely expensive. I decided to go back to the first hotel I every stayed at in South Africa over 15 years prior, the Hyatt. I first stayed at this hotel back in 1998 when I went to Johannesburg with friends to see U2 when they first played South Africa. The hotel had great memories, but I hadn’t stayed there since. Managed to book an executive floor king room with some orphaned Hyatt points, and was all set. Now, to enjoy Johannesburg a tiny bit!

It was already quite late, so I headed up to the executive lounge for snacks and wine. The lounge attendant was attentive…probably a bit too attentive. Every time I turned my back my wine glass was full, and within an hour I think I put down three rather large glasses. So much for my motivation to head out to dinner! Managed to drag myself out the door, walk back to Nelson Mandela Square, and find dinner regardless. Quick dinner of Thai (the only place with outside seating immediately available) and headed back to the hotel and absolutely passed out.

Slept in a bit the next morning, and headed up to the lounge for a light breakfast. After that I grabbed an Uber down to Melville to check out another neighbourhood I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years, and walked around for a bit, grabbed a coffee, and just relaxed. Got back to the hotel after a while, and then grabbed my bags and took the Gautrain to Rosebank to check into the Hyatt.

Got there, up to the Exec Lounge to check-in (which was just as I remembered) and then met up with another blog reader for lunch. He picked me up, and we went to Wolf Pack in Parkhurst for burgers and craft beer. Clearly he reads my blog and knows that craft beer and burgers are a quick ticket to getting me talking! One of the nicest things about this blog has been how readers have generously invited me out to show me their city or for meals and give me a bit of an insider’s look into the city.

Relaxed a bit after lunch, headed back to Nelson Mandela Square for coffee and to people watch a bit, before heading back to the Hyatt to grab a couple of glasses of wine during Happy Hour. This lounge shot is from breakfast the next morning:

IMG_6876

After a couple of glasses of wine, met a friend for dinner at Doppio Zero in The Firs for dinner. It had been years since I spent any real time at the Hyatt, and I had no idea this little courtyard area was located basically just behind the hotel. We had a great dinner and chat, kept it going with after-dinner drinks and catching up, and stayed up a bit later than planned…but it was so worth it. One of the greatest things about travel are the things you can’t plan like tours and such but just happen. Even with staying up a little bit late I managed to meet my goal of resting up a bit and was ready to head off to Madagascar in the morning!

Feb 032015
 

After a rather long day at work  it was off to Dulles Airport to begin the long trek to Malawi. Uneventful ride on the metro (the new silver line seriously makes the trek out to Dulles so much less painful since I live across the street from the station) and soon I was upstairs to check-in. Dulles was a ghost town for some reason, and check-in and TSA took no time at all, and soon I was “enjoying” the United Global First Lounge. Bubbles? Don’t mind if I do!

IMG_6725

Had about an hour in the lounge where I caught up on work e-mails since I’d been out of the office all day, had a few glasses of bubbles and some shrimp cocktail, and right on time it was time to board the flight to London.

United flight 924
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 22:00, Arrive 10:15, Flight Time 7:15
Boeing 777, Registration N778UA, Manufactured 1996, Seat 2K

I was sort of excited for this flight, since I used to be a regular on it. For about three years I was on this flight roughly twice a month commuting back and forth to London, almost always on Thursday nights. I hadn’t been on it in three years, so was looking forward to seeing if some of the London-based crews I’d gotten to know well were still working it. Unfortunately, no, it’s crewed by DC-based crews now but still promised to be a nice flight.

Until….I found out my seat had two broken storage compartments. The purser verified there were only three passengers tonight, so told me to move from 1K back to 2K. No problem at all…until four nonrevs showed up. It started with “that’s my assigned seat.” So, I told her my seat was broken, and the purser had authorized me to move so they should take it up with her. “No, you must take your assigned seat!”

So, I paged the purser….who told them to sort it out and take whatever seats were left – they were not to disturb revenue passengers. It was two groups of two, two of whom were on buddy passes. The nasty lady who was ordering me to move then tried to pin it on the other two. Ugh. Eventually the purser paged the gate agent to scold them….the gate agent came back, and told the buddy pass riders they’d have to get off the plane for violating rules…so, I had to step in. Ugh. Majorly uncomfortable. I literally couldn’t believe how aggressively this woman was fighting to sit next to her companion. Finally, I looked right at her and said “you should be thankful you’re even in first, I can’t believe you’re arguing this.” Her response? “Our benefits are negotiated and I know I’m entitled to my assigned seat!” Sigh. Eventually, they were told to sit down, shut up for the duration of the flight, or be offloaded…and we pushed back.

Welcome aboard class of Jeff Cliquot in the always-classy plastic flute. Number one of two the awesome purser brought me to tolerate the nonsense going on around me.

IMG_6728

Pushback….bins still open…and STAYED open during takeoff.  That’s the offender in the blue shirt 😉

IMG_6731

Continue reading »

Apr 232013
 

I’m going to be a bit briefer on this entry than the trip down, mostly because many of the flights were relatively similar…just in reverse.  That said, there were quite a few differences so I’ll go into a bit more detail about them.

Check-in at Johannesburg was a piece of cake despite the fully loaded A380, and we had our boarding passes within 10 minutes of getting off the Gautrain.  Past the ticketing counters, on the way to security, we saw this interesting gem:

IMG_5962

 

I’m going to guess that enough people flying out of JNB have weapons to check that not only do they need a special place for it, but they need a giant sign to let you know where to do it.  I guess this makes you feel a little safer?  Maybe?

No wait for security, but the wait for immigration was close to 20 minutes.  With A380s of Lufthansa and Air France departing, as well as a couple long-haul South African and BA flights it was no big surprise, and can’t really complain about it too much.  We did a bit of duty free shopping, and maybe a couple things worth mentioning:  if you want Africa-themed souvenirs, you can find just about anything you want at JNB.  There are several shops selling just about every sort of mask, statue, necklace, and trinket you could imagine.  If you want to buy South African wine…not so much.  There’s one shop, with a small selection, and they do NOT package or ship.  Sort of disappointing, but saved me a good deal of money I guess.

Shopping done, it was time to spend a bit of time in the South African business lounge.  Plentiful drinks served by bartenders, a bit of pre-packaged food that was so unappetizing I didn’t touch any of it, and internet that was about as fast as Oscar Pistorius…no wait, too soon.  It was slow.  Almost unusable slow.  So slow I used data roaming on my iPhone slow.  Oh, and if you want to plug in your device….you best forget it.  I think the whole lounge had about 10-15 outlets all of which were in use.  Womp womp.

Boarding for the A380 was total chaos due to it being a completely full flight.

Lufthansa flight 573
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 19:05, Arrive 5:45 next day, Flight Time 10:40
Airbus A380, Registration D-AIMC, Manufactured 2010, Seat 27K

This flight was nearly identical to the way down there.  I’m not going to post too much, because honestly…not much is different.  Pre-departure juice, water, or champagne (one glass, and one glass only), quick and efficient meal service from a very friendly crew, and I managed to sleep a solid 8 hours on the way to Frankfurt.  I can’t ask for too much more.  The menu:IMG_5968

I had the chicken thai coconut stew, and it was pretty tasty, but a pretty small portion.  I did get a second helping of cheese after the desert course (hey, I’m a growing boy) and with a few glasses of wine got an incredibly solid sleep as mentioned above.

When we deplaned in Frankfurt, there were German immigration officers just outside the jetbridge checking passports.  I’m not certain how this works, but I guess they want to catch people who ditched their passports in flight (hoping for asylum?) coming off the plane before they mix in with other flights so they can at least tell where they came from?   Anyone know more about why they do this?  I flashed mine, and we were off.  Quick re-do of security, and we were in the A/Schengen-gates senator lounge where a nice shower awaited:

IMG_5973

Showered and happy, grabbed a lite breakfast including lots of coffee, and some of the brightest and most festive easter eggs I’d ever seen.  But come on Lufthansa, you’re a couple days late…easter was a couple days ago!

IMG_5976

 

Continue reading »

Apr 182013
 

A couple months ago, people were posting about a fare from DC to Johannesburg, mentioning that while it was a great fare in business class, it wasn’t really cheap enough to be considered a “milage run.”  Well, I like to be comfortable, and with business fares earning 1.5 times the elite miles it was a no brainer for me.  I tend to think if I can buy a business fare for less than 10 cents per elite mile I’m doing well, and with the limited time off I have it made this a no-brainer.  The kicker was that my friend Dewon was already headed back to South Africa to renew a visa, and I could fly the outbound with him.  A few days after booking, my friend Phil wanted to join me for the crazy milage run from DC, and we had the makings of an adventure!

Of course, since this was largely for the miles I devised the most insane routing I could to maximize the miles, and it went off without a hitch!  All told, it would be around 33,000 elite miles earned, at the cost of only one day of leave…can’t complain too much!  Soon, the day of the trip was here and it was time to go.  I’m going to break this into three parts….  (1) the trip to South Africa aka this post, (2) our 1.5 days in South Africa, and (3) the trip back from South Africa.  Warning, this part of the post will be extremely picture heavy!

Got to National Airport, check-in was fairly efficient, TSA was a non-event due to TSA Pre-Check, and soon we were in the United Club.  I love the historic club at National Airport, not to mention the awesome bartender who makes the most amazing spicy bloody mary…perfect start to a big adventure!

IMG_5803

United (operated by Shuttle America) flight 3523
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 10:35, Arrive 11:44, Flight Time 2:09
Embraer E-170, Registration N638RW, Manufactured 2004, Seat 2F

Not too much to say about this flight…it was a pretty generic express flight.  One more drink, some “gourmet snack mix,” some crossword puzzles, and soon we were in Chicago.

IMG_5806

 

Whenever I have time, it’s become an O’Hare ritual for me to swing by Chilis for some Tex Mex Eggrolls and a Platinum Presidente Margarita…couldn’t resist this time either.  We had plenty of time, and the other option was to sit in a crowded United Club, so the choice was obvious!

IMG_5808

Continue reading »